The 2011 Laureates / Advanced Technology Category / Materials Science and Engineering

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John Werner Cahn

U.S.A. / January 9, 1928
Materials Scientist
Emeritus Senior NIST Fellow, National Institute of Standards and Technology
Affiliate Professor, University of Washington

"Outstanding Contribution to Alloy Materials Engineering by the Establishment of Spinodal Decomposition Theory"
Dr. John W. Cahn developed the theory of spinodal decomposition in alloy materials by incorporating the strain energy term into the free energy of the alloy system. It has made it possible to predict the optimal microstructures of alloy materials and to maximize their functions. The theory has led to the establishment of a design guideline for the development of alloy materials and contributed to the progress of both materials science and materials industry.

Commemorative lecture

Download(PDF): Full text of Commemorative Lecture (English) Full text of Commemorative Lecture (Japanese)

Abstract of the Commemorative lecture
Science during Paradigm Creation

Years ago, in mid-career, I read Thomas Kuhn’s classic, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and finally understood why was happy to have left physical chemistry and become a metallurgist. Metallurgy was exciting to me because it was in a paradigm building stage. I would often suggest to students and colleagues that read Kuhn would help them find their niche. Most preferred the power and certainty of working with well-established laws. Some enjoyed careful observations without deep understanding as in the pre-paradigm sciences. An adventurous few wanted to do paradigm building.

As a child I loved asking difficult questions, and gravitated towards science, getting a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at age 24. Kuhn calls physical chemistry a mature science with firmly established laws. Most chemists were happy, that by relying on these laws, their work could be perfect. A few were working in fringe fields that did not have rules; their work was frowned on, but I found some of it interesting. I had been taught that solids were inert and thus of no interest to chemists, but after taking a course in the physics of solids, I thought otherwise. Metallurgy and ceramics were ancient crafts with an enormous amount of fascinating craft knowledge that presented opportunities for new science. I became intrigued with the possibility of creating a chemistry of solids and took a chance by obtaining a position in the Institute for the Study of Metals at the University of Chicago. Two years later I was fortunate to join the world-class Metallurgy and Ceramics Department of the General Electric Research Laboratory which expected independence from their researchers, and sponsored the full range of activities from very fundamental research, to bringing new ideas to applications. Even the occasional commercial problems we were asked to solve, gave us the opportunity to dig deeper, identify missing science, and provide sound solutions. I blossomed in that atmosphere, and quickly gained wide recognition. I valued independence and had it in my later employment at MIT and NIST. To my amazement, many of the paradigms we created in metallurgy are universally applicable and useful in many science and some social science fields. Some will be discussed in the lecture.

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